Friedhelm Funkel endured a miserable return to Eintracht Frankfurt as his Aachen side lost an incredible topsy-turvy game at the Commerzbank-Arena. The 57-year-old must take a big portion of the blame too, because, anachronistically, he decided to start the match in a 3-5-2 system: which, coupled with a Boy Waterman blunder, saw Aachen 2-0 down and totally outclassed in the first half. Despite changing to a 4-4-2 diamond shape after the break and netting three late goals (for which Funkel deserves some credit, even if his team were still too flat until the final 12 minutes), Aachen still managed to lose after Karim Matmour’s 89th minute header. The home side won’t play many easier first 77 minutes of football than they did here all season. However, their inability to put games to bed reared its ugly head again, and if they’re not careful, this failing could end up costing Frankfurt promotion. Nevertheless, today’s – deserved – three points lifts them to the top of the table on goal difference, and that, I guess, is all that matters.
The home side wasted no time in attempting to put this tie to bed, attacking their guests with urgency from the word ‘go’. With Aachen instantly sitting deep and compact, ultimately, Frankfurt were forced to play their football along the ground. And that they did – passing from side-to-side, before upping the pace and taking the ball forward through a chink. However, although Veh’s side did create one or two half-chances in the opening ten minutes, the visitors – who had star man David Odonkor on the bench – were like a synchronised swimming squad early on; keeping their positions with impressive discipline, the midfield and defence banks – switching between 3-5-2 and 5-3-2 effortlessly – moving in tandem to ensure that the corridors in the hosts’ final-third were as narrow as could be, and that any balls put into the box were simple enough for goalkeeper Boy Waterman to deal with.
Although Aachen pressed with tremendous energy in their own half during the opening ten minutes, they didn’t always press with such vigour when the Frankfurt centre-backs had the ball. However, the home side’s possession – which must have been 100 per cent in their favour during the opening exchanges – was never really in their own half, such was Aachen’s determination to sit off. It was as if they had a lead they were determined to fight to the death to preserve.
However, in the 11th minute, we saw why Funkel had instructed his side to shun possession. The hosts’ lost the ball around the halfway mark, and Aachen at last had the chance to feed the isolated attacking duo of Benjamin Auer and Manuel Junglas. But, faced by heavy home side pressing, Reinhold Yabo panicked, and overhit his crossfield pass to Kim Falkenberg. After taking the awkward ball down, the only way the right-sided wing-back could go was back. Waterman had time to trap before hoofing long, yet, what happened next was quite absurd. With Mo Idrissou jogging to close him down, the Dutch ‘keeper attempted to punt the ball upfield a bit sooner than he had originally wanted. However, the left-footed custodian accidentally caught the ball with his right foot before making a connection with his left foot, resulting in an air kick and an inadvertent sideways pass to the grateful Cameroonian international, who passed in to hand Armin Veh’s side a 1-0 lead!
Two minutes later, things went from bad to worse for the 2. Bundesliga strugglers. Constant Djakpa hit a diagonal ball into the right-hand side of the box, where Idrissou collected possession under no pressure whatsoever: Timo Achenbach was nearer the halfway line than Waterman’s box, with the away side having lost concentration and belief after falling behind so comically. The striker pulled the ball back to Benjamin Köhler, who, benefiting from some headless chicken, space-creating opposition air-slide tackles and the fact that the three centre-backs were occupied by keeping tabs on Idrissou, Alexander Meier and Erwin Hoffer, passed in on his right foot for 2-0!
Although a clever triangle culminating in a disguised through-pass for Falkenberg won the away side a – subsequently wasted – corner-kick in the 20th minute, they remained on the back-foot, and at the mercy of their possession-bossing hosts. Funkel hadn’t made any attempt to change his side’s system, which had given Aachen no attacking advantage at all. His 3-5-2/5-3-2 experiment had worked when his side were sitting deep because it was essentially just a parked bus. However, gung-ho and quality-laden Eintracht Frankfurt had shown the shortcomings in the idea in scoring their second goal and on several occasions after it by passing into the space vacated by the wing-backs, who now had to get closer to Auer and Junglas if the visitors were going to get back into the game – a difficult task despite having the one-man advantage in the midfield, because Aachen don’t have technically good enough players to pass their way round or through a midfield as good as the one they were up against at the Commerzbank Arena.
With Frankfurt back to holding possession for fun, they nearly added to their lead in the 34th minute. Aachen were now sat off full-time in a 5-3-2, and didn’t even look to press Bamba Anderson, who had several seconds to think before playing his pass. He slipped in Sebastian Jung’s well-timed burst from the right strip of chalk through to the D, and the right-back very nearly found himself in a shooting position with Aachen ball-watching, and bundling their way into making a last-ditch tackle.
Aachen continued to stay in their 5-3-2 until half-time – a plan that made it look as if they were settling for a 2-0 loss. With only three men to play against in the midfield, Frankfurt could keep their full-backs nigh-on permanently in the opposition half, stretching Bas Sibum, Aimen Demai and Yabo to breaking point, and maintaining their monopolization of possession. Although a flat-back five made it difficult for Frankfurt to feed Hoffer, Meier and Idrissou in dangerous areas, they had a two-goal cushion, so seemed content to make neat triangles and occasional attempts at a through-ball in and from the second-third area of the pitch. Aachen did manage to get a shot on goal in the 44th minute, when Yabo cleverly spun Jung from an Achenbach throw-in to test Oka Nikolov, but their wasn’t enough power on the shot to alter Veh’s half-time team-talk.
Unsurprisingly, Funkel made two substitutions for the second half – Shervin Radjabali-Fardi and Sergiu Radu replacing Sibum and Thomas Stehle. Despite these personnel alterations resulting in the switch to a 4-4-2 diamond (with Yabo on the right, Junglas behind Radu and Auer, and Radjabali-Fardi on the left of midfield), the opening 15 minutes of the second half still saw wave after wave of Frankfurt attack – now with added penetration, due to Aachen having one less man in their entrenched defence. Although the strikers and the midfield were hurrying the hosts’ midfielders and defenders into making their passes, Aachen just couldn’t get on the ball themselves. The closest Frankfurt came during this period to adding to their lead, though, was from a 59th minute Köhler free-kick – won after Sebastian Rode dropped a shoulder and evaded Demai just off the edge of the box – which Waterman, a former nemesis of Stuart Pearce and the England U21 side, did well to tip over.
In the 64th minute, Aachen at last had a turn on the ball. However, they were so unaccustomed to having possession, they knocked it about too slowly and into obvious positions, allowing Pirmin Schwegler to step in and stride forward with the ball into the final-third. He played in Idrissou, who Seyi Olajengbesi did well to guide away from goal. Perhaps touching the ball is infectious, because two minutes later, Aachen had another go at it. This time, they went down the flank, exploiting Frankfurt’s lack of midfield width. The move eventually saw Radu get fed, and the Romanian won a free-kick just off the D. One set-piece led to another, a corner, and resulted in Auer having a header cleared off the line by Köhler.
Rode, presumably a bit dazed after a clash of heads with Radjabali-Fardi, was replaced by former Aachen favourite Matthias Lehmann in the 73rd minute. And, a minute later, Lehmann’s attacking colleagues created a chance out of nothing. Idrissou, strong as an ox, held off his marker, and laid the ball on for Hoffer to volley from the D. However, although Waterman was equal to the effort, the chance did seem to deliver an upgrade of sharpness and swagger to Frankfurt, who embarked on some more first-time triangles in their bid to prise Aachen apart and add a third goal.
With both sides visibly tiring and the game becoming ever more stretched as we entered the final quarter-hour, Aachen did get a few more chances to come forward. By and large, they looked stodgy and cumbersome in possession, and made little progress. But, in the 77th minute, a moment of rare quality saw the away side change the complexion of the game. Tobias Feisthammel managed to keep a ball from going out on the left, and pulled a sharp, bouncing cross back to the edge of the six-yard box. Approaching it from an angle that suggested he was gearing up for a left-footed volley, Auer duped everyone by letting the ball go through his legs, before nonchalantly scoop-flicking it on his left foot – in a manner akin to the famous Gianfranco Zola goal for Chelsea against Norwich City – into the bottom right-hand corner for 2-1!
Suddenly, Aachen had belief, and showed that they are capable of passing well, and at pace. However, their defensive frailties never went away, and Frankfurt restored their two-goal cushion three minutes after giving it away. Meier, on the joint of the left-hand side of the box, casually passed the ball a few feet to his right for Hoffer to trap. The Austrian striker was given time and space by both Olajengbesi and Falkenberg to ponder and shoot, and Waterman had no chance with his right-footed bullet, which made it 3-1! Yet, from the restart, Achenbach was fed to cross from the left, and his ball found Radu unmarked in the box. The striker nodded it in for 3-2!
And, amid a raft of changes (Giorgios Tzavellas and Matmour replacing Djakpa and Idrissou for the home side, and Odonkor coming on for Junglas), the utter madness didn’t stop there. Because, in the 87th minute, a deflected right-footed Demai free-kick – won after Matmour fouled Auer – bounced here, there and everywhere, including one-foot over the line, to make it 3-3! Yet, the sides were level for just two minutes, as Matmour – who scored a last minute winner against Fürth on matchday one – headed in a Schwegler free-kick won for a foul on Tzavellas by Falkenberg. 4-3! Much to the relief of doctors everywhere in Frankfurt, that was how it stayed. Aachen, so, so close to inexplicably taking a point, go home with nothing, and remain in the relegation zone.